'I'm not Nadal's replacement,' says Alcaraz as French Open hopes boosted

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Carlos Alcaraz | AFP

Barcelona: Carlos Alcaraz insisted Sunday that he is not Rafael Nadal's "replacement" as the teenager comfortably defended his Barcelona title, bolstering his bid to succeed his compatriot as French Open champion.

The 19-year-old brushed aside Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 to add the Barcelona trophy to wins in Buenos Aires and Indian Wells in 2023. He now has nine career titles.

With 14-time French Open champion Nadal sidelined since January with a hip injury and world number one and two-time Roland Garros winner Novak Djokovic struggling with an elbow problem, Alcaraz reinforced his credentials as a major contender to add the clay-court Grand Slam title to the US Open he captured last year.

However, he was quick to dampen speculation that he is the French Open champion-in-waiting, just five weeks out from the second major of the year in Paris.

"I don't want to be anyone's replacement," said world number two Alcaraz when confronted with his status as heir apparent to Nadal who turns 37 in June.

Nadal hasn't played since his second round exit at the Australian Open and has missed Masters events at Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo as well as sitting out Barcelona for a second successive year.

"In the two years that Rafa hasn't been here, I've been lucky or, let's say, I've won the title," said Alcaraz who defended his Barcelona title without dropping a set.

His win on Sunday was his fourth in four meetings against fifth-ranked Tsitsipas.

"I've always wanted to play against the best, it's a shame that we haven't been able to enjoy Rafa these last two years," added Alcaraz.

"Let's hope he continues to play for a long time and that we can enjoy his tennis, but obviously we are not here to take over from anyone, but to build our own history."

Alcaraz's caution is justified. Despite Nadal's continuing injury woes, he boasts a stunning win-loss record at the French Open of 112 wins against just three losses since his title-winning 2005 debut.

Two of those defeats came against Djokovic who shares the men's record of 22 majors with Nadal.

Djokovic reached that mark with a 10th Australian Open victory in January.

Despite concerns over his elbow, he knows that traditionally he improves as the clay season progresses -- his record shows two Monte Carlo titles, three at Madrid and six in Rome, the last significant event before Roland Garros.

Djokovic has successfully bounced back from elbow worries in the past -- in February 2018, he needed surgery on the injury but still won Wimbledon and the US Open later that year.

Both Nadal and Djokovic are sitting out the Madrid Masters where Alcaraz is the defending champion.

"Roland Garros is a clear short-term objective," added Alcaraz.

"It's a tournament I really want to win, but now we are focused on Madrid and then Rome. Winning the tournament here in Barcelona gives me extra confidence for what's to come."

Holger Rune, like Alcaraz also just 19, defended his Munich title on Sunday but unlike the Spaniard, had to battle back from the brink of defeat.

Plagued by a shoulder injury, which needed a medical time-out, the Dane came back from 5-2 down in the third set and saved four match points to see off Botic van de Zandschulp 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7/3) in a rematch of last year's final.

"It is the last match and the last push, so you try to find a way," said Rune who heads to Madrid having never previously played in the tournament.

Also heading to Madrid with confidence is women's world number one Iga Swiatek, the reigning US and French Open champion.

On Sunday, she defeated Australian Open champion and second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka 6-3, 6-4 to claim a second successive Stuttgart title.

"I wanted to win really, really hard, but I knew that I can't really focus on that and just I have to keep doing my job as I did in previous matches," said the Pole.

"I'm pretty happy that I could kind of have a good mentality and just focus on what I want to do tennis-wise." AFP

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